Twila Newey’s new novel Sylvia explores the constricting confines of religion, and the ways in which a deft and loving mother can help her children to find themselves both within and beyond this paradigm. The novel tells the story of the Taylor sisters (Mary, Roxcy, Eve, and Anna) who come together in the aftermath of their mother’s death from a car accident. The matriarch of a Mormon family in Utah, Sylvia (meaning “forest”) unites her four daughters in grief, just as she keeps them connected to each other in life. Sylvia weaves deep roots for her children to ensure that the world doesn’t have the power to destroy them, for “a grove is really just one tree.” Aspen trees figure heavily in this story, and a group of aspen trees are considered a singular organism. Such is the case for the women of Sylvia.
Through a series of time shifts, Newey’s poetic and tender novel explores Mormon life in Utah exclusively from the vantage point of women, and the ways in which they push against the limitations and expectations of their religion. Sylvia tells all four of her girls the origin stories of their names when they are young, making sure to shape each of these tales to match and empower her daughters. These stories connect the girls to their faith, and more importantly, to themselves.
The book makes clear just how good and skilled a mother Sylvia is, and how expansively her children feel the loss of her. Sylvia is atmosphere, she is nature, she is everywhere, much like God is meant to be. And she provides what we expect from God: unconditional love, understanding without judgment, the capacity to support her children in being exactly who they are. The novel notes on several occasions that Sylvia never picks wild iris, a nod to the nature of her approach to motherhood. She never pulls up what deserves to grow wild, never stunts the beauty of her daughters.
Sylvia’s four children are as different as the seasons. Mary, an accountant and the oldest of the Taylor sisters, feels a deep responsibility to keep her sisters safe. She accounts for all three of them all the time, concerned that someone might hurt them. In the bible, Mary is a caretaker. Here, Mary’s trauma from childhood sexual abuse pushes her to protect her sisters. A single mother, Mary takes care of everyone else, with one exception: Sylvia was Mary’s caretaker. Mary remembers that “her father was only a presence on the edges of her life. He was evenings and weekends. Her mom was all day, every day.” The Mormon women do the hard work, the work of building and protecting the generations; men exist on the periphery.
Roxcy, the second of the sisters, remains the most traditionally religious of the four. She gives up a prestigious internship while in college in order to get married to George, a man who would go on to become an attorney as well as Stake President of their Mormon Church: “[H]is full name was George Brigham Young, after the original Brigham Young, who was his great, great, grandfather.” Roxcy becomes a stay-at-home mother to four children, following in Sylvia’s footsteps. And yet Sylvia is concerned about the choices Roxcy makes while young. She doesn’t want Roxcy to drop out of school, and offers to help her with her first child so that she may finish her degree. Roxcy refuses. Sylvia accepts this decision.
Eve, Sylvia’s third child, is named for the first human woman; Eve means “life.” Yet Eve Taylor cannot sustain human life, and instead suffers five miscarriages. Eve’s a botanist, growing plant life, a constant reminder of her inability to become a mother. When she laments her infertility, Sylvia reminds her that “the only essential experience for you is the one you’re living.” Though motherhood is prized in Mormon culture, Sylvia refuses to allow her daughter to define herself by this limiting notion. “Look, I wouldn’t trade you girls, you know that, but I gave things up that I shouldn’t have. Didn’t tend to my other gifts enough. This narrowness, the sacrifice of self on the altar of motherhood, isn’t right or good or God. Being a mother is a wonderful thing, a beautiful piece of this life, but it’s not some pinnacle,” Sylvia says. This approach helps Eve to avoid resentment, and allows her to see appeal in the Mormon Church outside of the limits placed on women. “For Eve, church was a beautiful web of connections that grew in a little ward where people took the time to know and care for each other. Like a root system that ran beneath Mormon soil.” A root system sustained in part by Sylvia’s expanded view of a limited, patriarchal society.
Anna, the youngest of the Taylor sisters, is the least religious. Anna marries Matt, a devout Mormon who becomes a professor at BYU. They go on to have two daughters, and Matt goes on to cheat on his wife with a younger woman. They divorce, though Matt does not suffer the consequences that Anna does: “He has a trust fund and [doesn’t] even lose his job at BYU.” The Church punishes Anna for her ex-husband’s sins. When Anna complains to Sylvia about the difficulty of divorce, of her life taking a path she’d never anticipated, Sylvia reminds Anna that “life is a series of interrupted plans.” Sylvia accepts Anna’s belief that “the Mormon worldview didn’t seem divine at all but a very human hierarchy obsessed with control and based in fear.” Even as she feels like an outsider in her own community, Sylvia makes room for Anna.
The sisters gather to bury their mother in the beautiful landscape of Utah, and in keeping with Mormon tradition, they prepare their mother’s body. “They dressed her in myth,” Anna notes, a nod to the inauthentic demands of religion. The four daughters then scatter their mother’s ashes in the grove she loved so much. “Eve silently passes the box to Anna, who begins to walk her own circle linking her lines to Eve’s. The pattern continues with Roxcy and, finally, Mary. Like an unlearned sacred rite, they create a round repetition, edges that overlap, their mother, themselves, the grove of trees, a new constellation.” The five women become one. “Mom is the grove,” Eve thinks to herself. The grove is Sylvia.
Amy Strauss Friedman is the author of the poetry collection The Eggshell Skull Rule (Kelsay Books, 2018), and the chapbook Gathered Bones are Known to Wander (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016). Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Rust + Moth, The Rumpus, PANK, and elsewhere. Amy’s work can be found at amystraussfriedman.com.